Banning Problem Plastics

Is Victoria’s Single-Use Plastic Ban going in the right direction?

Less Waste; More Care

Victoria, the home state of Australia’s biggest city, recently announced it will ban single-use plastics by February 2023.

Cobalt looks forward to seeing Victoria’s plastic waste significantly reduce through this new initiative, so long as the result can be sustained long-term, and the end-user’s needs are championed in the process. Regardless, the new scheme is a positive move in the right direction and provides a solid groundwork for a better environment in Victoria.

We believe most people are ready to do more in terms of recycling and reducing plastic waste. For example, we’ve noticed this trend in our design research, and more tangibly from our clients, who in turn are responding to end-user’s preferences toward more sustainable products.

Cobalt Principal Steve Martinuzzo believes that “we are seeing more client’s genuinely care that the products they produce, reduce – rather than add – to the problems of waste, excess and social exclusion.”

Given this, it would appear the government is simply (and commendably) listening and reacting to emerging community sentiment. According to Steve “the case against avoidable single-use plastic packaging is mounting, so we need to find smarter ways, through design and innovation, to provide other solutions which suit users’ needs.”

Is all plastic bad?

One might believe that if single-use plastics are banned, then shouldn’t all plastics be as well? With alternative lifestyles such as plastic-free or zero waste becoming increasingly popular and the threat of irreversible climate change gnawing at people’s consciences, it’s easy to portray plastic as the enemy. But is it?

To put it simply, no. But it’s more complex than that.

Plastic at its core is durable, lightweight, flexible and relatively low cost. Ultimately, it is a resource that can be the most suitable one in many situations.  Plastic will continue to play a role in our everyday lives – whether it’s in our technology or our cupboards. What needs to change is the current mindset and habits regarding plastic.  The problem is not plastic; it’s the plastic waste that can be avoidable.

Roll it out the right way

At Cobalt, user-centred design has always been one of our biggest priorities. Our work with KeepCup embodies this view, with Steve saying that “doing good is pointless if people don’t want to use the alternative. With KeepCup we first stopped to understand user’s takeaway coffee habits. Only then did we set about changing their behaviours in a design which suited these needs. This resulted in establishing a new culture of reusable coffee cups. Achieving lasting behavioural change was our greatest accomplishment.

This process of understanding user needs before designing an alternative that people want, needs to be applied to this scheme, rolled out across a vast array of existing single-use plastic packaging formats. It will be a massive challenge, but done well, one product-category at a time, we believe the alternatives will be truly embraced, rather than begrudgingly abided by, which is the key to changing behaviours and the key to meaningful change.

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payment supplier code

Supplier Payment Code

Australian Supplier Payment Code

As a small business, Cobalt has always seen the importance in paying suppliers on time. It’s not only fair, but also drives productivity and keeps business relationships strong. For many years we have operated by these beliefs, and therefore it was easy to become proud foundation members of the Australian Supplier Payment Code (ASPC). We are proud to be named alongside other big signatories such as Commonwealth Bank, Aldi, Australia Post and the Victorian Government. View all the signatories here.

To keep our projects running smoothly, Cobalt relies on products and services from a multitude of small businesses. These suppliers help us reliably deliver high performance design services to our local and international clients. Having ourselves started from humble beginnings almost 25 years ago, we understand that managing cash flow and getting paid on time are the top priorities for small business owners.

By putting our name to the Australia Supplier Payment Code, we’re committing to transparent and fair payment practices. The code is a voluntary, industry-led initiative launched by the Business Council of Australia that protects the importance of prompt and on-time payment for suppliers through a set of best practice standards.

As a ASPC signatory, Cobalt commits to a number of payment policies;

  • Paying correct invoices from suppliers on time or within 30 days.
  • Providing clear guidance to suppliers about our payment procedures.
  • Where practicable and agreed, appling technologies to speed up invoice reconciliation, approval and payment processes.
  • Putting in place clear, fair and efficient processes for dealing with complaints and disputes about payments.

The code has been in effect for over two years and continues to grow with over 110 signatories. And we hope this initiative is replicated by our own clients payment practices. And to help remind them, Cobalt invoices will now feature the ASPC logo.

Read more about the ASPC and eligibility here.

View our other policies, including our confidentiality and privacy policies here.

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Recycling Victoria

It’s not rubbish – The case for a design-led approach to recycling

The Victorian Government has just announced that one million households across 46 councils will now have four kerbside bins by next year, as part of its plan to reduce waste going to landfill by 80% over the next decade. The new bins will separate regular recycling, food and garden waste, household waste and now glass recycling.

In response to the collapse of local recyclers and overseas channels, in 2019 Infrastructure Victoria commissioned a report on the state’s recycling system. Cobalt submitted a response to the interim version of this report arguing the case for a design-lead user insights exercise to bring together key industry and government stakeholders around end-users’ needs.

Cobalt welcomes the direction of the announced initiative, while noting it is still only a plan.  We believe people are ready to do more in terms of recycling. For example, we noticed this trend in our design research, and more tangibly from our clients, who in turn are responding to end-users preferences toward more sustainable products.

What will be critical to the initiative’s success however is how it is rolled out across homes. Therefore, Cobalt sees the next steps being to gather and integrate user and stakeholder needs. We know local councils, government and industry will have well-articulated needs, so our focus would be on uncovering the diverse needs of the Victorian public.

Capturing the insights of everyday people will enable the delivery of a implementable system that is truly embraced, rather than begrudgingly used.

The main considerations of a human centred design approach should revolve around:

  • How Victorians across different household, profiles, locations and councils and municipalities currently manage their waste and recyclables
  • Uncovering the personal motivations, barriers, deterrents, and drivers behind the public’s recycling habits to understand how best to implement any collection process
  • Uncovering all relevant stakeholder’s unarticulated needs, concerns and potential misconceptions of how waste should be managed at each stage of the recycling process

We look forward to seeing Victoria’s recycling habits improve through this new initiative, so long as the end result can be sustained long-term and the needs of the end-users are championed in the process. Regardless, the initiative is a positive move in the right direction and provides solid groundwork for resource recovery in Victoria.

Read Cobalt’s full published response to Infrastructure Victoria’s initial interim findings here.

Images in this article sourced from and accredited to:

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Product Design and Sustainability TB

Cobalt’s work for KeepCup case studied in international textbook

At Cobalt we believe design should improve the world we live in. Following sustainable practices, engaging in socially responsible design and using our technical know-how helps us solve these practical design problems.

Sharing our experience and helping to educate in design and sustainability are some of the ways we can make a positive impact.

Recently, UK-based author Jane Penty invited Cobalt Principal Steve Martinuzzo to contribute to her new textbook Product Design and Sustainability (Strategies, Tools and Practice, 1st Edition), aimed at design students, practitioners and educators. In the textbook, Penty writes on the principles of sustainability, the integration of sustainable strategies in design practices and introduces a diverse range of social, economic and environmental design tools.

According to Steve “it was an honour to be involved in this book, especially as Jane wanted to use real projects as case studies, and practical educational resources for sustainable design are still quite uncommon”.

Topics covered in include how our research and insights guided the final design, and what techniques were used to overcome obstacles for changing consumer behaviours; from disposable to reusable. “Changing behaviours was our biggest challenge and in the end, our greatest sense of achievement. Focussing on deeper user empathy, barista experience and adding unique value to the reusable coffee cup experience ultimately led us to a design that not only allows KeepCup owners to express themselves through their choice of colours and materials, but also use a reusable cup that is as functional as it is beautiful.”

As a final takeaway, in the book Steve says he believes “more and more clients will genuinely care about products that reduce – rather than add – to the problems of waste, excess and social exclusion.”

Product Design and Sustainability by Jane Penty is now a globally prescribed text book across a number of Architecture and Product Design tertiary subjects. It is available for purchase here.

Information sourced from © Routledge 2019. Product Design and Sustainability (Strategies, Tools and Practice, 1st Edition) by Jane Penty.

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Cobalt Fire Initiative

The Cobalt Fire Initiative

Cobalt stands with Australia. Cobalt stands for innovation.

Like people everywhere, we’ve been watching in dismay as Australian communities, lives and wildlife have been consumed by the on going fires. We extend our sympathy and thoughts to all those personally affected. And we want to help.

Coming together as a team after our Christmas leave, we’ve thought of how we can best contribute to rebuilding what we can, and better protecting ourselves from future fire emergencies. Our team agreed that we could offer more than a purely financial contribution; we wanted to help by doing what we do best. So here’s our response; the Cobalt Fire Initiative.


Cobalt and our staff will contribute up to $50,000 in pro bono fees on a dollar-for-dollar basis of an agreed new product development project/s related to:

  • Bushfire detection
  • Fire fighting
  • Rural community rebuilding

So we are calling for innovative companies, be they established or start-ups (local or multinational), to partner with us and combine their technology with our user centred design and production engineering know how to create tangible products that will make a real difference to people. We have no pre-conceptions about the technologies or product idea as our only measure will be the project’s ability to make a positive difference.

Therefore, the idea could be low or high tech; conceptual or near-production ready. The following are just some examples, and we remain open to all suitable ideas from genuine clients:

  • IoT deployable smoke sensing pods
  • Adaptions to fire vehicles or fittings that improve operational effectiveness or safety
  • Products or systems that increase the ability of homes or buildings to withstand fire

We’d love to hear more ideas. For more information or to confidentially discuss your idea, please contact us at Cobalt on +61 3 9320 2200, or email

Image courtesy of:

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Green and Clean

Cobalt Goes Green and Clean in 2019

2019 brought along a myriad of upgrades within Cobalt; enabling us to better respond to our clients, increase work efficiency and freshen up our studio’s design. From solar panels to new software, we head into into 2020 full tuned.

Our upgrades began earlier in the year with a major eco overhaul. Sparked by our belief that design should be socially responsible, we had long wanted our building to have as small an environmental footprint as possible. Our North Melbourne office now proudly sports a 12kw, 39 panel array of solar panels, an ultra-efficient HVAC system, extensive sealing and insulation works and new LED lighting throughout the building.  These works have already effectively reduced our daily energy consumption by up to 45%, and we are on track to exceed our original target of being 50% self-sufficient in power. This was all made possible by our collaborations with Sustainable Australia Fund and GenesisNow, who enabled us to rise above the previous hurdles we had faced with our building’s location and infrastructure.

Apart from lower environmental impact and power bills, the result of our eco upgrade is greater comfort, better lighting with the consensus from our team being overwhelmingly positive.

Once our major energy efficiency upgrade had been completed, it was time for the front-of-house to receive its overdue refresh. Our reception area had been an interim measure for far too long – project work always taking precedence. Additionally, the need to accommodate more staff in 2019 was what ultimately compelled us to upgrade the front end of our office.

The vision was simple – keep it clean, modern and undeniably Cobalt. After a rapid three week facelift, the space was transformed from simply serviceable to inspiring. Each element was carefully considered to ensure visual harmony, continuity and a seamless transition from old to new. Driven by our team members Mark, Len and Nathan, the biggest change was the relocation and re-design of the main reception desk. The ‘hello desk’ now corners off a new hub, housing the admin and marketing team together for boosted efficiency.  The smarter use of the space also enables us to accommodate 2-3 more staff, with better storage and access across the office.

But perhaps the most striking element of the renovation is the new feature wall created by Len. Covered in a 3.2m wide custom perforated metal panel, a bold first impression is created as visitors ascend the staircase from our lower level. Built into the wall is a backlit ‘Cobalt’ sign, in which we have the ability to dictate the colour, brightness and speed of the transitions at the touch of a button. Better yet, above is a cut-out of our logo with an LCD monitor behind.  Through the day this gives us the unique ability to display a countless number of visual references and textures that influence our work.

Updating our office in 2019 has been great opportunity to also shuffle the team around into a new layout, ultimately increasing productivity within project teams and prompted our staff to collaborate with new people.

We were blown away with the time and effort our team put into the renovation, with a special mention to Mark (for spending a big portion of his own time on the project), Len (for bringing our vision to life) and Nathan (for coming back to help us out).  

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Eco Upgrade

Cobalt Powers On

Recently Cobalt completed a major energy efficiency upgrade to our North Melbourne offices.

The works so far include a 12kw, 39 panel array of solar panels, an ultra-efficient HVAC system, extensive sealing and insulation works and new LED lighting throughout the building.  These works have already effectively reduced our daily energy consumption by up to 45%. And once stage 2 (energy efficient appliances) is fully complete we are on track to exceed our original target of being 50% self-sufficient in power.


Since 1996 we’ve believed that design should be socially responsible. So we’ve long wanted our building to have as small an environmental footprint as possible.  But at various points we’d been told that our site didn’t suit PV panels due to a taller neighbouring building immediately on our north boundary.

Despite this, Cobalt Director Jack Magree continued to believe a design workaround could be found, if only we could find the right supplier and a means of making it happen.

Solutions Align

In 2018 two key circumstances aligned enabling us to realise our dream; a financial solution which allowed us to fund the investment, and an engineering solution that could work.

In terms of funding we learnt of MCC’s innovative approach to creating smarter more efficient buildings through the Sustainable Australia Fund (SAF).  SAF was established by the City of Melbourne Council in 2002 to help businesses to invest in their buildings and operations to achieve better sustainable outcomes.  In brief, SAF provides the upfront funding for the works, and the repayments for this loan are based on the resultant savings in energy costs.  Once the investment is repaid, the environmental and cost benefits continue indefinitely for a win-win outcome.

The second alignment came via SAF who introduced us to GenesisNow, an energy engineering and implementation services group. GenesisNow immediately felt like kindred spirits to us, as they had a refreshingly can-do culture combined with a highly technical and professional skill set. Genesis’ founder, Geoff Andrews and his Engineering Manager Jon Fettes took the limitations of our site as a challenge that they wanted to solve. Their first step was a full shading analysis and simulation. This proved that shadowing could be managed to negligible levels through a cantilevered installation combined with new technology PV panels each with its own micro inverter.

Comfort and Efficiency

Producing energy is one side of the equation. Using less of it is the other. An initial power and building audit identified our existing HVAC (heating ventilation and air-conditioning unit) and lighting as the biggest and best items to change.

For HVAC GenesisNow again took a less conventional approach. They relied on the experience of HVAC  specialists EcoServices who according to Jack “specified a revolutionary  German-engineered smart system that moves air silently using the theory of Brownian motion of particles to transfer heat and cold air”.  The systems software continuously monitors  the  outside and inside temperatures,  humidity, CO2 levels, and the pressure of the building, to run far more efficiently than conventional systems.  As an example, said Jack, “On a recent 42oC (108oF) day our new HVAC system’s compressor was only running at 50% capacity. The system is smart enough to learn how quickly or slowly it achieves the target ‘comfort’ values so it can perform optimally in future.”

A central aspect to this system was to significantly upgrade the seals in the building; no mean feat given the fact that our office was built as a basic warehouse in the 1950’s. Another measure of how well the system performs is that despite the studio’s industrial height ceilings the multiple sensors show minimal temperature stratification, keeping the temperature within 1-2 deg throughout the building.

Capping off the HVAC’s smarts, is complete IoT monitoring and control. This allows offsite, expert system diagnostics and onsite adjustment through a web-based portal.  According to Jack, “watching the system’s dashboard certainly helps motivate us to use energy wisely, albeit can be mildly addictive!”

Let There Be Light

The last major piece of the upgrade was to replace our 150W metal halide ‘high bay’ studio lights. Designers are very demanding about their light; needing ample levels of even, natural tone to minimise shadows, render colours accurately and avoid over bright or dull areas.

The studio level’s 20 ‘high bay’ halide lights were originally selected 15 years ago as the premium choice of evenly  illuminating the studio by reflecting some of their light off the high pitched ceiling. And the light fittings themselves looked great as well.

In comparison, LED have a comparatively narrow focus so a low-power alternative that equalled the status quo was always going to be difficult.  The solution involves a triple LED bulb custom designed to fit into the existing housing to reflect light up and down, as well as additional skylight-style LED panel lights to create close to uniform 270 lux lighting at desk level throughout the studio.

The Result

Apart from lower environmental impact and power bills, the result of our eco upgrade is greater comfort, better lighting with the consensus from our team being overwhelmingly positive.

  • “It just feels pleasant, and quiet all the time”
  • “Transformative”
  • “Not sure how we put up with the old system for so long”
  • “Great that we are reducing our CO2 and fossil fuel use”
  • “We’ve literally breezed through the hottest summer on record without noticing”

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piles of trash bottles coloured grey and blue



Sustainability has rightly grown from a fringe idea about being ‘green’ to being a positive movement affecting all areas of our lives.

Within its wider definition of ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’, the idea of sustainability has expanded to also consider outcomes that are environmentally, socially and financially responsible for the world as a whole.

Given the enormity of this and the range of values and competing positions which could be considered within this definition, sustainable design is not an easy objective to fully resolve.

However, the scale of the challenge shouldn’t be an excuse as to not try. Whilst total sustainability may be a near-impossible dream, it is possible and readily achievable to do things better than we have in the past and to improve our world’s sustainability through good design.

Design: Problem or Solution

Most designers, at their core, want to improve the world. But design and new product development are activities within our wider and imperfect world, so at times, and especially in the past, designers have been part of the problem and not the solution.

New products can bring true benefits to people; people individually, people within companies or collectively within a society. For example, advances in diagnostic and therapeutic devices have improved health outcomes and the quality of life for most people in developed countries. There are countless other everyday examples. Although less noble, products like cordless kettles, multi-geared bicycles or quick-drying footwear are products that improve our daily lives through good design.

As well benefiting consumers, the very development and manufacture of products can also bring overall wealth and meaning to societies as witnessed in places such as Japan, Singapore and Eastern Europe- just to name a few.

But design, along with corporate, marketing and economic agendas, continues to be used as an agent for meaningless change, pandering to developed societies’ insecurities and selfishness. Like the societies in which it operates, elements of design have become tools for wasteful consumption.

In these ways design is a contributor to the problem of sustainability. But for us, design that is exclusive, indulgent and aesthetically-driven is contrary to our core values and our view of design.

Good design = Green design

For some products, up to 80% of a product’s environmental impact is defined during design and engineering stages, so careful design makes sense all round.

Good design principles, and Cobalt’s socially responsible approach can have a substantial, positive impact on a product’s sustainability performance. Some of these principles include:

  • Performance. Functionality and ‘fitness-for-purpose’ are paramount to good design. When a user has their needs met by a well-designed product they are more likely to keep and use the product without replacement or augmentation. In contrast, a product that does not deliver on its implied purpose through poor performance or design is likely to be replaced or discarded prematurely.

  • Simplicity. To us good design seeks to be elegantly simple. A common mantra is ‘less is more’. As a rule we will always seek to develop designs with the minimum number of parts, processes and materials necessary to perform the required functions.
  • Manufacturing. Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (DFMA) is another basic design objective we use and equates to easy assembly and disassembly- a prerequisite for effective recycling.

Green design = Mainstream business

It’s no coincidence these principles also make good business in terms of reduced cost of goods, brand-appeal and product quality.

And there’s no doubt ‘sustainability’ is rapidly rising as a purchasing criteria for more and more consumers. Even if businesses don’t believe in the ideals, it simply makes business sense to give the market what it wants; more sustainable alternatives.

Over the next few years there will be a rise in overtly sustainable products, like water-saving plant pots or fair-trade homewares. Already here and growing quickly, sustainability as a product attribute will be absolutely mainstream, much in the same way that ‘quality’ and ‘safety’ have become standard within successful brands rather than an extra bonus

What are we doing about it?

We make it our business to learn, improve and keep trying to improve our response to the challenge of being more sustainable.

New sustainability tools to help guide designs are being developed constantly. Here at Cobalt we use a variety of databases and online tools so that we have current information for:

  • Material properties (recyclability status, energy and water consumption rates)
  • LCA tools to help decide between design alternatives
  • Latest materials and products (low-power LEDs, motors, low-VOC paints)
  • International standards (RHOS2, WEEE)
  • Recycling acceptance and conventions

Plastic bottles in landfill

Less By Design

Tapping into our social conscience

At Cobalt we believe that, as designers and engineers, we have a social responsibility to improve the world that we live in. To support this ideal, we created our socially responsible design blog, At its heart, socially responsible design is about less waste, less resources and less hardship – hence ‘less by design’.

Since we started the blog in 2012, we’ve heard a diverse range of voices deliver different perspectives on a vast array of topics, including resource-saving innovations, waste and recycling, as well as technology developed for positive social impact. Contributors have included our own in-house designers and engineers at Cobalt, as well as sustainability and healthcare experts.


Whilst talk is cheap (and writing blog posts is too), we have endeavoured to apply our beliefs around socially responsible design by engaging in projects that also support this philosophy. Great examples of this are the ASRC Food Justice Truck and the KeepCup product family. These are also excellent case studies in illustrating how socially responsible design can make good business sense.

Take a look at our latest post. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Hands Down- a smart educational product

HandsDown! Educational Design

Education Design

IT teacher Robyne Luketic was frustrated by the time wasted by students in her classroom having their hands in the air. She decided that something had to be done, and with the innovation of the designers at Cobalt, the HANDSDOWN system was created.

The question

How could you create a simple, yet effective way of helping students and increasing teaching time? Luketic and Cobalt found a solution by prioritising the needs of students.

The answer

Cobalt designed a product that consisted of a plastic base, metal plate and a tall aluminium pole with three interchangeable foam hands. Project manager Daniel Booker said, “With this project simplicity was the way to go” with a focus on low volume and robustness.

The hands, which are red, green and amber can be placed onto the pole to demonstrate the level of assistance that pupil requires. The red hand indicates that they cannot continue without help, the amber hand is for problems that require help, but are not urgent and the green hand signifies that the student is happily working.

The product is completely recyclable and detachable. The universally recognised traffic light colours have assisted peer teaching, understanding and special needs education in addition to reduced classroom distractions. The innovation has been a huge success in schools. Teacher Tammie Thompson stated HANDSDOWN had enabled a “more organised, constructive classroom where students are focused on their learning and not on disturbing others around them.” (Source: